About 20 years ago, it was pretty tough to sell California pinot noir. Sure, you could peddle the occasional bottle of high-end pinot noir to the obsessed collector, but, for the most part, California cabernet sauvignon was king … and so was chardonnay. Both varietals were finding a strong foothold in an increasingly aware marketplace. The balance of wine drinkers at that time were consuming hefty lots of white zinfandel, and some zinfandels, as well.
Flash forward to 2006, and things look considerably different. Pinot noir is emerging as a major player on the wine front. And, while cabernet sauvignon is still a leading varietal, it has to share the limelight with numerous other reds, vying for the attention, and palate, of the consumer.
How do these shifts in consumer desirability occur? There are reasons, both scientific and synchronistic, why paradigms in taste are shattered by our culture, and replaced by other tastes — reasons too numerous to go into here, but at least a couple of which are easier to grasp, particularly in the field of wine.
Winemakers today have white zinfandel to thank for the many steady wine drinkers who cut their teeth on that fruity little wine. But, talk to most former white zinfandel drinkers, and many of them will tell you that they graduated to drinking something less sweet, more food friendly, and with a more sophisticated flavor profile. Enter chardonnay. Chardonnay soon became the white wine of choice for American audiences in the mid-to-late ’80s, and well into the ’90s. Winemakers were trying to make chardonnays that would appeal to the former white zinfandel audience — immediately likeable, with a heavy dose of buttery oak and an almost perceptibly sweet mid-palate. As you can probably predict, a backlash from all of those over-the-top chardonnays was bound to happen. And it did. In the mid ’90s, a movement called ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) started to grow within the industry. Sommeliers and retailers, as well as wine critics, were growing tired of big chardonnays, and started to, in effect, slam them, to use the modern parlance.
Winemakers found themselves with excess chardonnay in their coffers, slowing sales, and less-than-enthusiastic sales people. Some of them started to change their chardonnay making style, to reflect a more measured use of oak and secondary fermentation. This resulted in chardonnays reflecting a more elegant flavor profile, often characterized as “lean,” “minerally,” and “refined.” Because consumers became more comfortable with these nuanced versions of chardonnay, and wine critics began to give them higher scores, the stage was set for more elegant white varietals to enter the scene.
Flash forward to present day again, and we find ourselves drinking more and more pinot grigio (which has replaced sauvignon blanc, the most favored white, next to chardonnay, according to Wine Business Monthly magazine). Pinot blanc and viognier have also found an emerging foothold in the market, as consumer confidence grows in areas like ordering and talking about wine. Because our culture is increasingly exposed to talk of fine wine, the average consumer no longer feels intimidated ordering a “French-sounding” varietal. It isn’t unusual to find any number of Santa Barbara County viogniers, for example, on the shelves at local grocery stores and wine shops. This wasn’t the case even seven years ago.
The latest white wine to delight consumers is gruner vertliner. This little gem of a varietal became trendy about two years ago among top sommeliers on the East Coast, looking for the next interesting white wine to put on their by-the-glass lists. Though it’s been widely planted in Austria for a long time, it’s just now finding its way to American consumers. For about 15 bucks, consumers can buy a delightful gruner vertliner; a sexy wine with ample green apple overtones and a hint of sweet fennel on the nose. The other night, at a local restaurant, the waiter actually recommended a gruner vertliner. The trend has found its way to the West Coast.
And let’s not forget pinot noir. Pinot noir became popular long before the film Sideways, though I suppose that movie didn’t hurt sales. But, the truth is that pinot noir is so complicated as a varietal that it can be made in various ways, attracting a broad base of consumers. For example, a winemaker can fashion a bigger, more fruit-forward pinot noir, or a more lean, Burgundian-style pinot noir. The decisions a winemaker makes about his or her fruit sources, oak program, yeasts, harvest time, etc., will all ultimately effect how the pinot noir will taste in the end. But, because this complicated yet very satisfying varietal is mysterious and complex, it can appeal to consumers with their own preferences and likings.
I predict that California pinot noir will be a trend that, like California “Cult Cabs,” becomes a mainstay; it will move from the arena of what’s hip to what’s traditional. The fact that these wines are finding their own place in the canon of American fine wine and food may be not only because Americans love a good trend. It may actually be because America is growing up as a culture and becoming more sophisticated in its taste for food and wine. Wines like pinot grigio, viognier, and pinot noir have been around for hundreds of years in other parts of the world. That they are now finding a place on the average American dinner table may be a testament not to America’s rampant consumerism and love of trends, but its deeper appreciation for quality and new traditions.